Thousands of Afghans who escaped their country after the Taliban’s shocking 2021 takeover are still being “arbitrarily detained” in a camp in the United Arab Emirates without fair access to processes by which they can apply for refugee status, according to a report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch.
Between 2,400 and 2,700 Afghans hoping to resettle in Western countries have been stuck in the “Emirates Humanitarian City” for more than 15 months without freedom to leave the fenced housing complex, at which conditions have deteriorated significantly since they first arrived, the report said.
“Emirati authorities have kept thousands of Afghan asylum seekers locked up for over 15 months in cramped, miserable conditions with no hope of progress on their cases,” said Joey Shea, United Arab Emirates researcher at Human Rights Watch. “After enduring significant trauma fleeing Afghanistan, they are facing further trauma now, after spending well over a year in limbo in the UAE.”
Following the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan on Aug. 15, 2021, the United States and its partners evacuated thousands of vulnerable Afghans and their families at an incredible rate to other locations around the world, including the U.S. and Canada. The UAE agreed to act as an intermediary nation and took in thousands of people who were then hoping to apply for asylum protection in third countries. They were transferred to a specially designed accommodation facility, the “Humanitarian City,” pending those onward moves.
Among those still stuck in the UAE camp are high-ranking officials from the previous government and people who worked for U.S. government-affiliated entities or programs in Afghanistan. Some of those peoples’ asylum cases have been rejected, while other applications are still pending as they lacked sufficient documentation to be accepted by third countries.
One person interviewed by HRW said they had worked as a security guard at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and another in the laundromat of a U.S. airbase.
“The camp is exactly like a prison,” HRW quoted one of the Afghans at the camp as saying.
“The big problem is we don’t know our future and we don’t know our destination,” another said.
HRW did not name the individuals, but said it had “interviewed 16 Afghans detained in the Emirates Humanitarian City in October and November 2022, including eight who previously worked at some point for U.S. government-affiliated entities or programs in Afghanistan.”
One Afghan man told the group that authorities at the camp had told him he needed a visa to leave the camp. A similar account was given to CBS News in January by an Afghan man whose wife and children were stuck at the facility. He said he was in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, but hadn’t been able to see his wife or children just a few miles away for more than a year.
Each family at the camp has a one-room accommodation.
“We have been here for 14 months, and life is very difficult… the same room is used as a dining room, living room, and sleeping room and the washroom is inside the room,” said a woman interviewed by HRW. Others spoke of poor sanitation, bed bug infestations and housing complex residents suffering with mental and physical health problems.
Those stranded at the facility have staged repeated protests, calling on the U.S. and its allies to relocate them to third countries.
A video from January shows protesters chanting, “we want justice,” while holding a white banner declaring themselves “forgotten” by the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service and the international community.
In another video, from mid-2022, children inside the camp hold up a banner that reads “justice.”
HRW calls on the UAE government to immediately grant the Afghan evacuees freedom to move in and out of the camp and to ensure access to fair and individualized processes for refugee status determination and protection.
The group also calls on the United States and other developed nations to urgently expedite the resettlement process for those stuck in the camp, and to generously consider individuals’ cases as they seek to reunited with their families, and find safe new homes with access to education and employment.
As CBS News immigration reporter Camilo Montoya-Galvez reported in August, unlike more than 70,000 Afghans who were directly evacuated and then quickly resettled by the U.S. in 2021 after some security vetting, those living in the Humanitarian City have been subjected to a slower, case-by-case immigration review by U.S. officials that does not include any guarantee of U.S. resettlement.
Under U.S. policy, Afghans evacuated to the UAE before Aug. 31, 2021 – just a couple weeks after Kabul fell to the Taliban – were effectively guaranteed permission to enter the U.S. if they passed certain medical and security checks, the State Department told CBS News. But those who arrived after that date but wish to be relocated to the U.S. must prove they qualify for a U.S. immigration benefit, such as a visa or refugee status.